Utopianism

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Utopianism is the ideal of a perfect, present, earthly society, organic, harmonious, virtuous, satisfying, has a lengthy history. As far as Christianity is concerned, where it has been conceived of as realizable at all, it has been only in the microcosm. Where these tiny minorities have been sanctioned, it has stemmed from the conviction that the Holy Spirit can so bring the life of the heavenly community into this age that, with the response of a few heroic souls, something more approaching the society of the eternal state can be realized than the church has hitherto exhibited.

These are eschatological communities, with special relation of their hope. Morally the Spirit gives particular grace to forget self and share both possessions and one's inmost spirit. The Spirit present in such measure also bestows his gifts, so that a charismatic community emerges. In the dynamic phase of these communities there is frequently also an apocalytic element. Such pouring out of the Spirit is the brief latter - rain manifestation indicating the imminence of the return of Jesus Christ and the ushering in of the supramundane community, either celestital or millennial.

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Abilities and skills are also given. In its totality the Christian utopian community is filled with worship, and with joy that it is uniquely the dwelling place of God by the Spirit.

In the Early and Medieval Church

Monasticism has been the supreme form of Christian utopianism. In the cloister the graces of poverty, confession, obedience, and peace are implemented. Charismatic activity has varied greatly over the centuries, but even at its most minimal the abbot or abbess occupied a quasi - prophetic role. And there have always been those like Joachim of Fiore, in his twelfth century Sicilian cloister, who have regarded monasticism as a sign of that soon - coming age when the whole world would be a monastery. So monasteries have been a window into and a preparation for heaven. As Roman Catholic monasteries have been in relationship with ecclesiastical authority, a balance has been given that has allowed this form of utopianism to survive and thrive through the centuries. In the Middle Ages there were many utopian groups influenced by monasticism, but their apocalypticism frequently drove them to dissent, which tended to mark the end of the road in a closed society.

In the Reformation

At the time of the Reformation the magisterial Protestants, in their reaction, often possessed only a moderate expectation of what the Spirit could accomplish in believers individually or corporately. The keynote of "O wretched man that I am," even if it should continually impel to Christ, did not radiate great anticipation, while the whole matter of the charismatic was virtually banished. As a result it was quite consistent that monasticism should be dissolved, along with any other form of utopianism.

Anabaptists, on the other hand, gave more indication of continuing emphases of piety which comported well with monasticism. This was particularly true of the Hutterites, whose communitarian structures in Moravia exhibited a family - oriented Protestant monasticism, and have continued to do so to this day on the American plains and the Canadian prairies.

As the Reformation proceeded, Calvinism embodied some of the Anabaptist concern for a disciplined life, and this came to particular expression in the English Puritans. Their intense concern with sanctification began to create a desire in some quarters for a life akin to perfection. Not finding these aspirations met in mainstream Protestantism, the left wing of Puritanism, during the Cromwellian interregnum, displayed a lush spiritual vegetation of utopianism. Perhaps the Quakers were the most moderate, believing only that means of grace and official ecclesiastical ministries were no longer necessary for those who possessed the Spirit in such immediacy and fullness. There were also primitivists who believed that in their age of the Spirit the restrictions of private property could no longer apply, and in addition to apocalyptic Fifth Monarchy men there were antinomian Ranters, who interpreted their lack of conscience over sexual irregularities as a certain sign that they had been lifted far beyond mundane restriction into a new realm of liberty in the Spirit.

How desperately a Protestant pope was needed in such a situation. But failing such a provision, the antics in these purported vestibules of heaven did little to convince Englishmen, unspiritual or simply less spiritual, that utopianism was a desirable option. Yet in spite of this reaction the longing for heaven on earth could not be entirely quenched.

In Modern Times

The search for utopias in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had many stimuli. The eighteenth century was an age of optimism; among the figures of the Enlightenment there were advocates of human perfection, and John Wesley reached back behind the Reformation and sought to rehabilitate moral perfection in his teaching on perfect love. And of course he had Holiness descendants who believed in the ontological eradication of evil in those redeemed and sanctified. In such a setting Shakers and the Oneida community were only the tip of the utopian iceberg.

The Shakers, remembered best for their artifacts and tranquility, were so filled with the Spirit that there was neither marrying nor giving in marriage and there was open confession of sin, community of possessions, pacifism, equality of the sexes, and consecrated work. Their utopianism was also charismatic, with their dancing in the Spirit and the founder, Ann Lee, being such a unique prophet of God that she was actually the incarnation of the feminine side of deity. In upstate New York was the Oneida community, directed by the Andover Seminary graduate John Humphrey Noyes. Led by the apparent success of revivalism and Christian social reform, Noyes founded a community in which the Spirit's gift of love was so all - encompassing that it had to be expressed among all, even sexually. Though this expression was restricted and regimented, it did not require many such instances to bring utopianism into disrepute. And there it languished for many years.

During the first two thirds of the twentieth century one of the few new and viable Christian utopian communities was the Bruderhof, which patterned much of its life after the Hutterites. Then came the social upheaval of the late 1960s and early 70s and the emergence of the Jesus Movement. Communitarian experiments multiplied. some simply existed as centers of nurture, but others shared something of the dreams of Christian utopianism. A few, picking up the ideology of Latter Rain Pentecostalism, believed that this was the age of the manifestation of the sons of God, and that they were uniquely in the forefront of the new and glorious end - time humanity. Most of these communities lacked a counterbalance and quickly vanished from the scene.

But the utopian Christian continues to express his challenge: there is more, much more, of the life of God that is to be unleashed on earth.

I S Rennie
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
L Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality; N Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium; E L Tuveson, Millennium and Utopia; W Cross, The Burned - Over District; D Hayden, Seven American Utopias; B Zablocki, The Joyful Community; C Wiesbrod, The Boundaries of Utopia.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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